Leaving the Ivory Tower
February 12, 2012 11:46 AM   Subscribe

I'm halfway through a PhD program in the humanities, but I'm almost positive I want to quit academia after I get my degree. What are my best options?

I'm in my mid-twenties and ABD in a top-ranked PhD program in the humanities. I'll be teaching and studying languages until the end of the next academic year. Then I'll be doing research abroad for a year, and hopefully finish the diss a year later (on a completion grant). So I have 3-4 years to go until I get my degree.

The problem is, I've grown to despise academia (the departmental drama, the exploitation, the entitlement, the arrogance, the masturbatory pseudo-politics) and at the moment I can't imagine living in that world for the rest of my life. My ideal would be working as an IT guy, either in an academic/library setting or anywhere else. I worked in IT in college and I really grew to relish and enjoy the problem-solving aspects and the gratitude and appreciation people showed when I helped them with their computer issues. I don't feel anything like that in academia. I do enjoy my topic, which is fascinatingly obscure and filled with unique challenges but is totally useless and incomprehensible to anyone outside my field.

So I should just drop out as soon as possible, right? Well, that's the thing. I'm not sure if this is something that will pass or not, and in the meantime I'm fully funded and making a modest, but highly reliable income. The two years I'll spend doing research and writing will be a lot easier than the current one, since I won't have any teaching or bureaucratic hoops to jump through. I'm very reluctant to throw away everything I've built up in this program--and I'm doing pretty well, with several publications out already and several more lined up, good teaching evals and faculty support, etc. My reasoning is that it's okay to waste my twenties getting this degree, since at least it's not putting me into debt.

Is this reasonable? What can I do over the next four years to make my path out of academia (and, hopefully, into an IT-guy kind of career) as smooth as possible, without burning any bridges? Is my hatred of academia likely to pass at some point? Please share your experiences if you've ever gone through anything similar.
posted by derrinyet to Work & Money (18 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Oh man. Don't worry so much. Stay in the program, finish, but while you're working at it, teach yourself all the IT things you need to know to make the job search easier when you're done.
posted by ohmansocute at 11:49 AM on February 12, 2012

Response by poster: teach yourself all the IT things you need to know to make the job search easier when you're done.

What kinds of things? I don't have any certs or anything, but I'm comfortable with things like WMIC and I used to run Linux full-time back in the bad old days when you needed to edit /etc files to get anything done. My experience as a low-level IT person was that it mostly involved knowing how to use Google really well and interpret the results. I'm not concerned about being able to pick up specific technical abilities, but I am worried that my lack of experience and relevant education and contacts will make it really hard to transition into a job that pays a living wage.
posted by derrinyet at 11:56 AM on February 12, 2012

So, if you're worried about lack of experience, can you intern somewhere over the summer? Not to mention informational interviews with people who have the job you'd like. You are obviously intelligent, and with your unique background in the humanities, I'm betting a lot of professionals would be willing to speak with you about how they got their IT positions.

I'm not an IT person, at all, but am also in grad school and will have to teach myself certain things to get the job I want upon graduation.
posted by ohmansocute at 12:01 PM on February 12, 2012

If you're quite sure that you don't want to stay in academia, don't.

Do a little math.

3-4 years at your current salary versus 3-4 years in an IT job versus making a better salary (and contributing to retirement)...

Why not apply for some IT jobs that you can get now, see how it works out, and then see about dropping out.

If you're leaving academia, there is no reason to be concerned about what you're built up in your program. It will be close to meaningless in your IT career. (If you were going into consulting or policy work that the PhD credential and/or pubs would mean something, I'd say that you should think about this differently.)

Right now you're taking up time with your advisors and your travel grant/fellowship that could be going to someone else or other things.

On the off chance that you're just stressing out and you might want to stay, stay in. Not all departments are drama-filled ego-fests. But then again, you're in the humanities, so job prospects aren't good anyway.
posted by k8t at 12:17 PM on February 12, 2012 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Frankly, I think you should be seriously considering dropping out sooner. It's all right to continue to coast in your grad program while looking for an exit strategy, but trying to do that "without burning any bridges" is going to be almost impossible. At best, you'll slowly drift out of contact with advisors and colleagues; at worst, you'll seem to be wasting their time and acting in bad faith while they and the department continue to invest effort in preparing you for a career that you've already decided you don't really want. And while I can't read your mind, it's generally very uncommon for feelings like these to quietly resolve themselves — academia gets harder to survive and more psychologically punishing as you advance through the dissertation and the job hunt, so feelings of frustration, alienation, and purposelessness in the early years of grad school should not be discounted. So I really think it'd be wise to consider getting out now, or soon, and beginning to find your way toward the kind of job you want, rather than treading water in a situation that you already know won't be right for you in the long term. Check out So What Are You Going to Do with That? for some advice about making the career transition.
posted by RogerB at 12:21 PM on February 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: two things:

1 - transitioning away from academia is done successfully by many thousands of people worldwide every year. But it's definitely better done as a positive rather than a negative event. When someone in the future asks, you can say exactly what your reasons were (perhaps without the word "masturbatory", depending upon situation) and how you made a deliberate successful decision to change paths - just as though you had a career in accountancy that wasn't fulfilling, and now you're transitioning to policy. But - and this is a big but - you want to look successful - and that probably means doing the time/opportunity cost optimisation relevant to your situation right now - how many years to completion, at what financial and personal cost? Because ideally you want to be saying "I succeeded at that, but it really wasn't for me." rather than "I spent four years and then changed because I didn't like it."

2 - soft and transferrable skills are easily obtained in academic environments, despite what people say. Take as many courses relevant to your future as your computing support department will provide. Volunteer for anything that will give you team-building/running experience. And think about doing a distance-learning IT specific qualification whilst you're still in the program. Everyone does almost all their doctoral work in the last 6-12 months.

tl;dr: Definitely possible - but do it on your terms and with your first job interview in mind all the way though
posted by cromagnon at 12:24 PM on February 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: What can I do over the next four years to make my path out of academia (and, hopefully, into an IT-guy kind of career) as smooth as possible, without burning any bridges?

1. Gather documentable skills and experience—basically, stuff you can put on a resume.

1a. If the terms of your funding package allow you to work part-time while in grad school, do it. Picking up 5 or 10 hours a week doing something IT-related, possibly at your university, is enough to put the job down as professional experience and show that you're staying current in the field.

1b. If your funding package bars you from working for pay, do volunteer work. You may be able to offer IT support to a small local non-profit, or you could do something like computer mentoring for disadvantaged youth.

1c. Keep an eye out for training opportunities.

1d. Do projects independently or in collaboration with other people. If you were interested in programming, I'd say to write some software or build an interactive website based on some interest of yours, but I'm not sure what the equivalent is in IT. Do you have friends in the sciences or the arts who might need tech help with their experiments or multimedia installations, for example?

1e. Consider saying "yes" to some opportunities even if they aren't clearly IT-related. As cromagnon suggests, being able to say you led a team (for example) adds something to your resume even if the experience was in an unrelated field.

2. Build a broad-reaching professional network.

2a. Get on LinkedIn if you haven't already got a profile there, and connect with people you know even if they're not in IT.

2b. Approach people who work in IT (or any other field you think you might be interested in) and ask for informational interviews.

2c. Look for local discussion groups / meetups / hangouts / clubs where IT people congregate.

3. Start building general job-search skills.

3a. Read "So What Are You Going to Do with That?"

3b. Visit your university's career center and peruse the materials. Read more job-search books. Maybe talk to a counselor. If you get a good one, they can even give you some ideas for sorting out whether your frustration with academia is temporary and situational or a sign that you should be in a different career.
posted by Orinda at 12:33 PM on February 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Among other things, my wife spent the last two years of her PhD program in anthropology quietly taking all the prereqs for a professional masters in computer science, a 1.5 year program she entered immediately after graduating with a PhD. After that, she entered the job market making considerably more than any anthropologist and quickly made up for the cost of the extra degree. YMMV.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 12:38 PM on February 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you want to work in IT, I cant see how a PhD will help you. Take the big step now: quit now, apply for jobs now, get used to "real life" now.

I know people who waited, and they all regretted it. Some wasted another 3 years of their lives and didnt get a PhD anyway. If you dont want one and wont need one, it is time to move on.
posted by twblalock at 1:27 PM on February 12, 2012

I agree that you should try to decide NOW if you're really quitting or really sticking with it. The (financial) opportunity cost of sticking through to the end of the degree could add up to one hundred thousand dollars (or more) in lost income. (That goes triple if you're going into debt for this degree.)

That doesn't count lost time, and the heavy psychic costs of graduate school. I'm finishing up a degree in the humanities right now and it's HARD. And I *like* academia, and want to stay.

Decide if you think you want to go, and if you do, just go.
posted by gerryblog at 1:38 PM on February 12, 2012

Best answer: If you're really sure you want to go into IT, find a job there and then drop out of your program. A humanities PhD won't help there.

If you just think you don't want to be a professor, stick with it. You could be romanticizing IT because it was a part-time college job (which will likely be less fun as an adult doing it full time to earn a living). An English or history background could give you soft skills that are marketable and that may even help you in the business or consulting world. Or you could find that not all schools are the same, or that sitting out drama is an option, and that you may actually enjoy academia at Vanderbilt or the University of Arizona rather than Michigan or Stanford.

Honestly, you sound like you're in a funk. Try to give yourself a little time and space to reflect. If you're just in the moment of your department annoying the shit out of you, it may pass.
posted by J. Wilson at 1:59 PM on February 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Get involved in HASTAC -- http://hastac.org/ it's a great resource for people in the humanities who also want to work with technology, and you can ask there about what you need to do tech in an academic setting
posted by spunweb at 2:11 PM on February 12, 2012

If you want to have the Ph.D just for the sake of having the Ph.D, and it's not currently costing you any money, then stay in the program for God's sake and work on developing your employable skills while you draw a low paycheck from your stipend or whatever. Getting a paycheck while you can work on advancing your skills is like gold in this current economy. As for your dissertation, if you don't want to go on the academic job market, you can just bang something out in your spare time.

If you're paying anything (including taking out loans for living expenses), the situation is totally different.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:12 PM on February 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

A good idea is to survey what non-academia options your classmates are taking when they finish. IT is nice and everything, and the money is pretty good when you're working part time as a college student, but I think you should step back and consider if this is really what you want as a career, compared to the other possible options available to you.
posted by deanc at 3:31 PM on February 12, 2012

Best answer: I think your current plan to stay and finish is a good one. Plenty of people do PhDs simply out of interest, and they tend to be the happiest, in my experience. Finishing up is so much easier when you aren't all stressed about the difficulty of getting an academic job and about getting publications and grants and stuff. And you might still change your mind about what you want to do, which is fine too.

Anyway, with the economy the way it is, waiting another 3-4 years before putting yourself on the job market doesn't seem like a terrible idea. You can start applying for IT jobs a year before you finish, even, and if you get one earlier than expected, you can maybe finish up the dissertation part-time while transitioning into the new job.

This is coming from a perspective where I assume your "modest" income is covering your expenses, including some retirement savings and insurance. If you are going into debt or are short of actual life necessities, you might want to consider looking for that IT job sooner.
posted by lollusc at 4:07 PM on February 12, 2012

Best answer: Spunweb's suggestion of checking out HASTAC is a good one - digital humanities is very big right now. However, it sounds like you mostly did basic support before - you'd likely need stronger tech/programming skills. Folks with a strong background in the academic humanities (so they understand the particular needs of humanities scholars) and good technical skills are well-positioned to take advantage of the interest in digital humanities.
posted by clerestory at 4:10 PM on February 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

I don't know how helpful I'm going to be here because I'm going through something similar myself, but I can tell you what's been running through my head.

The biggest thing I'm considering these days are opportunity costs. Sure, you have funding (so do I) and though you hate academia you don't hate your particular subject/question. So -- is the PhD worth it? Should you stick around just because you "may as well"?

At the risk of sounding like an inspirational poster -- life is short, so you have to try and figure out what those three years are going to mean in retrospect. No easy feat!

My situation is a little different in that I'm year 2 in a program that has a 7-year-to-finish average, so that colors things for me. Why don't you try applying for some IT jobs that you think you'd like and see what happens? If you get the job you can always take a leave of absence from your PhD while you see if the new job suits you, with the option of going back if it doesn't.

Good luck figuring it out!
posted by blue_bicycle at 5:27 PM on February 12, 2012

Best answer: I was also coming in here to suggest digital humanities work. Even if it's not 100% what you'd do in IT, is there any way to bring in some sort of digital humanities aspect? You could be responsible for IT things like project management, server administration, account setup, scripting/programming languages, etc. Go to summer conferences or institutes with HASTAC, ADHO, others -- if you can get involved with a well-funded project in your field, it's conceivable they'll pay for you to go to one- or two-day workshops to learn tech skills.

Even if you can't work in that sort of thing, since you're fully funded and the economy is no party right now, I agree with the people saying you should finish it out. My general reading of your tone is that you're not thrilled with academia, but you don't hate your program and the topic of your dissertation is still compelling enough to be interesting. If I'm reading your tone correctly, then my opinion is that you should stay.
posted by lillygog at 6:21 PM on February 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

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